Cover Story: Next step in airport security

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - When passengers go through airport security most people think they're checking for everything.  What they don't know is the devices the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA uses detect metal.  They don't detect explosives.  Until now.

Charlotte's airport is home to brand-new screening technology aimed at keeping dangerous people off planes and keeping passengers safe.

However, some are concerned this could be an invasion of privacy.

When the first generation of these machines came out some people were calling them a virtual strip search.

Since then the technology has been improved and security experts claim passengers don't mind the whole body scans.

"Step inside the machine."

You step onto a mat, in between what looks like two big metal boxes, raise your arms and in an instant... it takes your picture.  What you look like without clothes.

Unlike a metal detector the so-called Backscatter X-ray Technology looks for metal items like weapons and non-metallic ones.. like explosives that can be hidden under clothing.

That is where a would-be bomber hid his plastic explosives when he tried to bring down a Detroit-bound plane last Christmas.

"What December 25th illustrates is the length that people who want to cause harm.. the length that they will go to attempt to do that," says Jon Allen with the TSA.

Tuesday, Charlotte Douglas becomes the latest airport in the country to go live with the whole body scans.

The TSA was demonstrating it for the media on Monday and trying to fend off any concerns over privacy.

"It's not possible to look at an image and connect that image with a particular individual," says Allen.

To keep that from happening an officer in a separate room away from the body scanner views the x-ray photo.  Faces are blurred.  And once the passenger clears the security checkpoint the image is destroyed.

Images resemble a chalk outline not nearly as graphic as first generation scanners were.

"I want to be the first one to walk through it."  Wanda Kotlinski doesn't have a problem with it.  She gets patted down every time she goes through security.  This worker for an airport concessionaire got a knee replacement three years ago and sets off the metal detector every time.

She says, "I can't wait because all I have to do is walk through it put my shoes there and then I'm done. They don't have to pat me down. That's great. It's going to save a lot of time."

TSA is rolling out the backscatter advanced imaging technology at airports all over the U.S.

By the end of the year the government hopes to have 450 machines on line making it more likely than not passengers like Becky McCabe will be going through one.

"I think it's kind of a sign of what's going on in the world today," she said. "It's unfortunate. But I think that's what they need to do to make sure passengers are safe and we can continue to travel."

Charlotte Douglas has one of the machines.. it's in Checkpoint D.  The airport is supposed to get two more by this summer.  The machines cost about $150,000 apiece.

The whole body scan machines are option, but if someone doesn't want to go through the backscatter machine.. he or she can go through the metal detector.  And if it's set off.. the passenger would be subject to a pat down.

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